Question - Is Mario Haggan an ILB, an OLB or a coach? Answer - he sure is. And that explains a lot. It explains why the Broncos were glad to give him a contract extension on Wednesday and why he was also announced as a team captain on the same day.
He is a product of relative poverty, a man who knew that sports were a way upward in his life. Mario Marcell Haggan was born on March 3, 1980, in Clarksdale, Miss. He comes out of the Deep South, a man who went to college at Mississippi State following an All-American status while at Clarksdale High School. While there, he was named first-team all-state by the Jackson Clarion-Ledger and played in the Mississippi/Alabama All-Star Game... Mario also led his team to the state Class 4A championship in 1997. As a senior, he recorded 158 tackles with three fumble recoveries. He also earned All-American status with USA Today. Even so, the offers to play in college didn't exactly roll in, but he found interest from a few. As is his way, Mario wanted to stay near home.
Alabama, Mississippi State, the other Mississippi school, Illinois, and a couple other Division I schools showed a lot of interest. I was mainly looking at staying in-state," he remembers. "What made the difference in the end were the Bulldog coaches. The style of defense and the type of recruiting Glen Davis did. He and Coach (Jackie) Sherrill made me feel like I would really have a chance to do good things at Mississippi State, and it turns out they were right.
Haggan started at LB in 1999, a season that saw MSU start 8-0 and earn one of the highest national rankings in school history.
"The '99 year was a great year. We rotated two defenses, so that allowed me to play behind Barrin Simpson and a couple other guys and be an early contributor as a young guy. That year was special because we played together as a team," Haggan said. "We had about four or five come-from-behind victories. We went through a period where we lost to Alabama and Arkansas and had a chance to go undefeated or even compete for a SEC championship. To come off those to two losses and beat our rival was really big and meant a lot to recruiting in this state."
In his four years at Mississippi State, Haggan won awards as a linebacker during three of them. What happened to the fourth? Based on an idea one of his coaches had, Mario went from being a healthy linebacker to being an underfed defensive end, what we now call a 'tweener'. Back then, though, there were a lot fewer teams playing the 3-4, and tweeners weren't in much demand. The experience was a failure, but as usual, that didn't bother Mario. Mario is laid back.
"I never like to look at the past as a mistake, especially right now with me being blessed to have the success I'm having right now," he said. "Would I have taken the move then? No, but it happened, and I went out and gave it all I had. It ended up being a good year for me individually, though not for the team."
"The coaches did what they felt like was best at the time, and that's all I did, just played for my team and contributed however I could at the time. Everything happens for a reason, and I'm here in the NFL now in one of the heights of this game and I can't complain."
In that statement you learn a lot about Mario. In an era of big egos and small minds, Mario is all about the team. In that, he's exactly what the Denver Broncos are looking for. Add to it the fact that he can play inside or out and longs to coach when his NFL career ends and you've got a nice fit for the Denver Broncos. It would be a winding road before he made it to his new home in the NFL.
When the draft rolled around, Mario was listed by NFLDraftScout as the 14th-best inside linebacker in the 2003 Draft. These are his numbers from Combine:
Height: 6' 0.25"
40 Yrd Dash: 4.88
20 Yrd Dash: 2.84
10 Yrd Dash: 1.74
225 Lb. Bench Reps: 21
Vertical Jump: 33
Broad Jump: 09'02"
20 Yrd Shuttle: 4.46
3-Cone Drill: 7.55
Here are some of the things that were said about him:
"Good tackler. Team leader with good intangibles. Smart player."
"Mario Haggan is a strong, intelligent player with an excellent build for the MLB position. Mario Haggan has experience at defensive end. Mario Haggan has shown himself to be an excellent run-stopper. Mario Haggan also has decent pass-rushing skills."
"Athletic linebacker with good upper body strength. Good tackler. Team leader with good intangibles. Smart player. Also played defensive end in college but is likely too small to play there in the pros. Plays much better closer to the line and can struggle in man to man coverage. Lacks speed to the sideline."
"Mario Haggan was a productive college player at a few different positions, as his stats show he's always around the ball carrier. Mario Haggan doesn't have the size for defensive end or the speed for linebacker. However, there have been pro-bowl quality MLBs before without much speed."
"Mario Haggan has shown he has the instincts to succeed if he's given a chance."
POSITIVES: Intelligent, run stuffing defender with marginal athletic skills. Breaks down well, quick locating the action and shows a good head for the ball. Slides off blocks laterally, flows to the action and takes good angles to the play. Patient, fills the right gaps, yet forceful up the field.
NEGATIVES: Lacks range and not effective in space. Does more chasing than covering in pass defense. Slow redirecting to the oncoming ball carrier.
After the draft, he was touted as a project, but a player who could get to the quarterback or get to the ball carrier. Buffalo wasn't so sure. That home, that chance they talked about and that Haggan was looking for, was still a long road away.
Did you know that Mario was quite nearly a Denver Bronco once before? In fact, he was a single pick away. In the 2003 draft, he was pick #228 for the Buffalo Bills. Denver had pick #227 and chose a defensive end by the name of Clint Mitchell. Remember him? If you don't, you're in good company. Pro-football-reference.com doesn't have a darned thing on him, either: I'm assuming from this that Mitchell was a bust. I've seen a rumor that he appeared briefly in Kansas City, but it turned out that Clint went and played in NFL Europe; but he never was a player for Denver.
Mario, it should be noted, was decidedly not a bust. As a special-teams player in Buffalo, he rolled up 49 special-teams stops, the seventh-most in the league from 2004-2006. He helped Buffalo rank first in the NFL on special teams, according to the Dallas Morning News, in 2004 and 2005. Despite this, he still couldn't get on the field as a starter and got few reps as a backup. That didn't matter to him. He always did things that same way. When he played, he found the ball and took out the ball carrier. He was more quick than fast, but he never gave up on a play. He believes that good things will come if you keep your head down and work hard.
In Buffalo, part of the issue was personnel. The Bills had strong ideas about who was their type of linebacker and who wasn't. Apparently, that didn't extend to a bigger, slower, tweener kind of guy who would fill in at times as the Sam or the Mike in their scheme. Eventually, the Bills decided that despite his special-teams excellence, Mario just wasn't going to work out. When he accidentally took an over-the-counter weight loss product that had a banned substance, Haggan was suspended for 4 games. Buffalo decided that they'd had enough and traded him to the Denver Broncos, who were looking for some help at linebacker. When the Broncos announced a move to the 3-4, Haggan was one of the players who was the happiest. He knew the kind of skills that he could bring to the table, and this was clearly his chance.
"I've always wanted to get the opportunity to play 3-4," said Haggan. "My whole time I was in Buffalo, playing the 4-3, a lot of people said they felt like I was a 3-4 outside linebacker. The 3-4 clicked a light bulb, and I'm just excited for the opportunity to get on the field."
The Broncos are very happy to have him aboard. Happy to the tune of the players making him a team captain. Happy to the tune of the front office giving him a two-year, $3.5 million contract extension that includes $1.25 million guaranteed. Mario Haggan seems to finally have found a home in the NFL. As a born leader with a constantly positive attitude and a southern man's smooth gift of gab, Mario Haggan is versatile, physically and mentally strong and extremely dedicated. He's the kind of niche player that the New England Patriots have made their reputation and garnered a few Super Bowl rings on.
This is what Josh McDaniels had to say about Mario on Thursday:
"(He has) a great work ethic, tremendous attitude. (He has an) understanding of what we want him to do, (is a) very physical player and fits our system well. I believe this is really the first opportunity for Mario to have played in a system where he plays on the line of scrimmage a lot over tight ends and has an opportunity to really use his strengths. He is a big guy and is very physical. He can move well. He is also very selfless. This is a guy that will play a bunch of plays in the kicking game and start on defense, which you don't really see that much. He doesn't want to come out. He doesn't want to come out on the kickoff return. He doesn't want to come out on the punt team. He wants to be in there because every chance that he has to help us win, he is going to give it everything he has. I think everybody recognizes that, including the players."
He's smart. He's a natural leader. He's also experienced on both defense and special teams, two areas where the Broncos have needed help for years. And he's been looking for a professional home, so the joining of team and player seems to be a perfect fit.
"We are very pleased about that, excited about having him here long term," Josh McDaniels said, "Well deserved. Hopefully he'll play a big role on our team this year."
As team captain, Haggan likes inspiring the other players in the locker room. Haggan also intends to use his gift of talking to people in a professional setting when the NFL doesn't beckon anymore.
"I want to have a broadcast career and I've done some things with broadcasting already," said Haggan. "I would say broadcasting is my first choice and coaching is a close second. I still have that dream of coming back to be the defensive coordinator at Mississippi State."
"I had a great opportunity to work at the TV station at Mississippi State and was an intern," said Haggan. "That really helped me get started. Now I have my own radio show in Buffalo and do some tv spot segments from the Bills' locker room for Channel 4 in Buffalo. I have also been to the NFL Broadcasting Boot Camp, doing all I can to boost my broadcast career, my second career so to speak."
He hosted a radio show on FM 103.3 The Edge called "The Specialists" with teammate Josh Stamer during the 2006 season in Buffalo. He majored in sports communication at Mississippi State. And, oh yes, he's interested in coaching. He's already taking it on himself to use that skill in the locker room, and the Broncos players have responded. The locker room needs a lot of strong, vocal leaders. They have a new one.
I loved what Mario had to say just before the Combine back in 2003. I really though that it perfectly summed up the man I've gotten to know through researching his story. At that time, Mario said,
"I'm excited to get the opportunity to be presented with the best of the best. I know I can fit in with these guys and can help make plays and learn from the veterans. I'm excited and nervous at the same time. I don't know what's ahead, but I know I'm prepared for it all."
Here's what he said about his own children:
"It's the greatest feeling in the world," said Haggan of being a father. "When you wait for the right time, it is great to be a father. I would not trade it for anything in the world. My family means everything to me."
Sometimes, in this often-strange world, the good guys win. It doesn't always work out that way, so it's nice to take a moment and appreciate it when it does. Congratulations, Mario. By all lights, you deserve this.